Chester Martin Remembers The Soldiers And Sailors Memorial Auditorium

Friday, December 11, 2015 - by Chester Martin

All of what I know about the origins of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Auditorium ("Memorial Auditorium", for short), comes from my mother. It seems that back in the 1920's Chattanooga had nothing in the way of a modern venue for performers . There was only one inadequate building which was half-way suitable. It stood somewhere near Patten Parkway and 9th Street (MLK) - perhaps where the 2-story parking garage is today. Chattanooga had always had highly popular "Vaudeville" and "Chatauqua" acts, which my mother and friends frequented.

One year a very famous Irish Tenor came to town: John McCormack. He took one look at the decrepit building and left town without performing!

The rest of the story is pretty obvious: the embarrassment that followed led directly to the construction of a larger and more modern building - the one we have today on McCallie Avenue. It has hosted many, many famous names and events through the years, and I will name only a few:

"South Pacific" played there in about 1954 - with the original Broadway cast - the first Broadway play I ever saw. "Holiday On Ice" was there many times. The "Black Hills Passion Play" came there several times in the early 1950's. One of Radio's big drama shows (perhaps the Lux Radio Theater) did one "live" show on-stage there - the male "lead" being film-actor Walter Pidgeon, and the show was about Andrew and Rachel Jackson. (I marveled at the clever handling of the sound-effects, produced "live" on stage!) Red Skelton, the multi-media comedian, long a favorite on TV, and the zany, "Spike Jones and his City Slickers" band appeared there. Legendary comedian, Bob Hope, appeared there once, shortly after WWII. There was a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" where a black singer sang a most moving and dramatic version of, "Were you there...?", and in the same play a male dancer fell suddenly on stage, to the audience's consternation, but  quickly recovered and continued the dance - and play - as if nothing had happened.

Many, many "home shows" took place at Memorial Auditorium, and I was always amazed how quickly the stagehand crews could convert the place from a circus venue to an ice-rink, then, a week later replace the ice with 2,000 folding chairs! “Oklahoma” played there, and I think I saw the very last "Minstrel" show that ever came to Chattanooga - about 1960.

 Memorial Auditorium has also been home to many a religious service, especially back in the 1950's when Billy Graham was at the height of his popularity. The house would be packed!

Once, in the mid 1950's, I remember being excited about the fact that the "Don Cossacks Chorale" was coming to town. I did not have much money at that time, yet I hoped to go. The (River Don) Cossacks were Russian, of course, and the U.S. was then mad at the Russian Soviet Union, as it was at the apex of the "Cold War". They were only to be here for one scheduled performance, and I was never able to find out for sure why their performance was cancelled; I only know that it WAS quietly cancelled, with no reason publicly given. I regret that to this day as there is no more rousing music in the world than a Russian chorus!

There is a smaller auditorium upstairs, also, that is hidden away,  - "embedded" - if you will, and is unknown to most people. I think it is called the "Community Theater."

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

 

Chester Martin
Chester Martin


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